Machining for Research: An Interview with Kodiak Burke

Researchers at the Thayer school of Engineering at Dartmouth College work on some of the most complex problems facing us in the spheres of energy, medicine and the whole gamut of complex systems prevalent in nature and technology. Apart from brilliant minds, this quest requires brilliant tools and equipment. So who do the researchers turn to when they require their tools? Yes, outside vendors is one answer, but when there are no outside vendors for the tools they want to be made, when the tools are so specialized and unique that only one or two of those have been made they turn to the people at our machine shop.

Kodiak Burke, is one of the people at the machine shop who bring to reality the tools of a lab.

Kodiak holds the title of a teaching assistant at the machine shop and is an accomplished design engineer, machinist and teacher. He works independently to develop the required tools and machines once he gets the necessary inputs from the researchers. His projects give him a high level of independence and autonomy while at the same time place tremendous responsibility on his shoulders. Kodiak is a Dartmouth graduate with degrees in Engineering and Engineering Management; he’s also a competitive lumberjack and a ski patroller.

In this feature, we’ll be sharing with you Kodiak’s experience of working on such projects in the machine shop. This interview was conducted and condensed by Pavan R. Yerram of the machine shop social media team.

Hi Kodiak, thank you for speaking to us, please tell us a bit about your projects at the machine shop.

Hi, my projects range from the simple to the sophisticated and complex, right from machining a bit of metal to building full blown machines. Lately, I’ve been working on developing a “Constant stress machine” for measuring and inducing creep in ice samples for Prof. Baker’s lab. Prof Baker’s lab is involved in various studies in the field of material science.

What does the machine do and what’s creep?

Creep can be best described as something which a piece of silly-putty exhibits. Inducing creep in ice samples is similar to elongating a bit of silly putty by pulling at its ends; and the length by which it can be elongated without a break in its middle is creep.

So, it’s a machine designed for pulling ice samples at their ends by applying constant stress and for continually measuring the changes in length by the use of sensors.

That’s very interesting, so why are we making this machine here instead of purchasing it?

That’s because it’s unique, one of a kind, actually two of a kind machine. Since, apart from the one I’ve designed, there’s only one such other machine which I know of built at Stanford University 30 years ago. And I’ve used the Stanford paper describing the machine as a reference while building this one.

Could you describe the process of building the machine?

Sure, the process consists of designing and machining. These two processes are common to building any machine. In my experience the designing phase is the most important one and good designing accomplishes 95% of the work involved in the fabrication of a machine. For the design of this machine I obtained inputs from the original Stanford paper and from the researchers. Once I had figured out the requirements of the machine, the actual designing using Solid works was easy.

The process of machining was the most difficult.

Why was machining so difficult?

The hard thing about machining is that all the night mare scenarios of the real world do come about when we start machining. What I call the side effects of working in the real world. Of all the problems in machining in the real world the greatest problem is that of vibrations. Vibrations are the hardest to deal with. Tools for cutting are hard since they are made of steel and carbide and when these tools are used to cut other metals, the vibrations produced affect adversely the accuracy of the cutting especially when very fine tolerances are involved. Like for example cutting a straight line within 0.001 inch when the machine cuts the line within 0.015 inch in default setting causes problems. At that point, it is a function of your patience to figure out the required settings of the machine by adjusting and fiddling with its various knobs to produce the accurate dimensions. The patience to find what I call the machine’s happy place.

Finally you don’t know how all the parts are going to fit together, and whether the machine is going to function as desired till you join all the pieces and until then you aren’t sure of how the project is going to turn out.

Tell us a bit about how long this project has occupied you?

It took me 10-15 hours a week over a period of 8 weeks to design and build the machine; most of the time was spent on researching the designs for the machine and designing it.

So, good designing and machining are time consuming efforts, could you describe some other challenges you faced?

Yes. So the other big challenge was figuring out what exactly the users wanted. There was a lot of back and forth between me and the researchers to figure what was required.

Also I had never worked with the sensors required for this project before, and had to figure out how they work and their tolerances.

You described the actual designing part as easy, but would it be the same for anyone else as well?

No, machine designing is inherently not an intuitive process and it comes naturally to me now because I have been doing that for the past 3-4 years. This didn’t happen automatically and I’ve been doing machine designing now for the past four and half years. I started working with this [subject] in my freshman spring which was in 2008.

Finally, what do you think are the most essentials attributes for a person to be a good designer and machinist?

I would describe patience as the most critical in designing and machining. It’s about being patient, taking your time and chipping away at it slowly and not expecting to see the results daily. That way you do the process only once.

Machining work requires a lot of attention to detail as well, since the tiniest of details can make or break your project.

I’ll also point out that when people think about machining they think about all these big machines, but the ability to work well with the smaller instruments, most importantly the sensitive measuring instruments for accurately measuring your work is essential. These instruments are like delicate Swiss made watches and students should be careful in working with these.

Well that concludes our interview, thank you very much for speaking with us; any parting thoughts?

Thank you. Well I would say that whenever you design or build something it has a personality which was never intended. Yet, it does end up having its own quirks like some cars. Creating and building machines is also about dealing with the personality, or you can say the ghost of the machine.

 

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